This was a new discovery. I had no idea that fleas could live between sheets of plastic. Don’t they thrive on animal hosts, chew on the flesh of humans, but this?
Oh, how life throws in surprises.
Before we address fleas, let’s return to the beginning.
I’m a single female traveler. I had two beautiful cats, one passed away, the other one I tearfully let go to live on an urban farm in exchange for this rich, exciting thing called travel. I’ve also cared for numerous dogs in my time.
I rented apartments for years (also co-owned a condo with my sister and brother, though they lived here, I didn’t). I can clean, moderately cook and maintain a household. This is beginning to sound like my dating profile, but anyway…
Now that I live this unusual, but sexy existence (have to keep up that illusion) I am always hunting for ways to travel creatively.
Isn’t it idyllic? But I need to go back even further, to three months ago, when I received an email from a man named Dan (and yes, his name was changed for this story).
There is a large front room, two bedrooms (one for my children), a kitchen and an outdoor garden. You will be welcome, we are sure!”
Enter house sitting, IN Amsterdam. For three weeks!
A beautiful garden, with all that space?
In a world renowned city!
That’s full of art, architecture and outdoor parks?
I felt elated, for many more reasons than that.
For a long time, this post would have been titled, Why House Sitting Sucks for Solo Travelers.
Two years prior to this I signed up with sites like Housecarers and the Caretaker Gazette and applied constantly for house sitting assignments, but the overarching response was singles were left out in the cold.
Ad after ad asked for couples only. When a type of house sitter wasn’t specified, I’d get rejected anyway. One woman turned me down by stating I would feel isolated based on the location, even though I protested with the common writer’s parable. We inhale the deathly quiet, revel in cryogenic freezing to really allow the creative magic to flow. Solitude is our only kin. Blah, blah, blah… That still didn’t work.
For ages I wrote off house sitting as a viable accommodation option. Though, yes, many people do it and I know of at least one single woman who does regularly through these sites, but she initially started in a couple situation.
I was beginning to take it personally, until Amsterdam landed on my lap. It felt wonderful to have such a stellar house sit come to me, that I soaked in the fantasy rather than the reality.
Let me clarify: I’ve house sat before.
For friends, through word of mouth and for other bloggers.
They even gave me references.
But this was my first house sit through a paid site. It was Dan’s first time and mine, both of us formal house sitting virgins.
We exchanged emails on basic logistics, like arrival/departure dates, household expectations, and so on. He and his young family had a big summer planned, with camping in Germany, it all sounded so pleasant.
When it came time for me to arrive, I proposed meeting the day of or even earlier to exchange keys. He said that he couldn’t, that they were leaving quite early in the morning and that maybe he’d be able to give the key to his neighbour. I asked for her number, until he emailed again and informed me that he decided to put the key under a plant in the garden and leave the back gate unlocked, not wanting to bother his neighbour. Not a problem, he said.
I thought, how trusting Dutch people are and was he sure? No worries, he confirmed. Just please call me to tell me you’ve gotten to the house or if there’s a problem. Absolutely, I replied. He was leaving for camping within two hours of me arriving so I glossed over that point.
I navigated my way from the airport into Dan’s neighbourhood, found a gate (as he illustrated by directions and photos) and opened it to find a garden with some planter boxes and overhanging trees. To the left was an inviting picnic table with large wooden chairs that invoked reverie – a spot to sit, write or watch birds fly from branch to branch.
I found the key as he instructed, unlocked the back door and let myself into his sunny, welcoming home.
Part of my duties were to take care of their petite cat Fritz. I found her food bowls and attached to the back door was a pet door for her to come and go. No problem.
I threw my suitcase on the floor of the master bedroom, since there seemed no where else to store it and I opened it up to change clothes.
I immediately found some printed instructions where Dan left his number, yet noticed there weren’t any emergency numbers listed. Hmm.. I’ll ask him for those when I talk to him. It will be fine.
I called Dan, who was hard to reach in the camping environs of Germany. When I finally did speak to him, I reassured him I was in the house and everything was swell. Oh and Dan, emergenc — and then the line cut off.
This seemed to be our communication pattern going forward. I’d call, it would ring, there’d be no answer. I’d catch him, we’d talk for a little, the phone would go dead.
Anyway, back to the glorious house sit…
Soon I found myself exploring the spacious rooms, all full of sunlight, bookshelves and interesting art on the walls.
For a day and a half, I quickly set a routine of petting the cat incessantly, laying out my things, buying groceries to cook yummy homemade meals and trying to catch up with a heavy workload, but by day two something was strange.
I had a shower that morning and shaved my legs, but by the afternoon, noticed some odd bumps on my ankle. Not uncommon, since mosquitoes adore my blood, yet these ones were smaller and in a cluster of more than two. Ugh, such oddness. A secondary observation, Dan mentioned in his instructions that Fritz had a respiratory condition that caused her to sneeze frequently, and sneeze she did. More on that later.
Soon I found more bites, until I noticed a tiny black bug clinging to my shin. I tried to pick it up with my index finger and thumb, it leaped up and jumped away.
Enter, the fleas.
Day three was the real beginning of the nightmare because I had established that Fritz had fleas, but hoped it was only an early strike of them. With no emergency numbers to guide me, and it being Sunday, I couldn’t find many stores open, let alone a vet clinic. I had to wait. In my state of waiting, I tried Dan again. Oh glory be, would he answer?
He answered the phone and I launched into it. Did you know that Fritz has fleas? A brief silence, then he exclaimed nooo, I didn’t know. As we talked about treatment, he finally admitted that she’s had this problem before. By this point, alarm bells should have been going off. He apologized, reassured me he’d compensate me for treatment, and so on. I asked about a relative who could commiserate with me, yet he didn’t exactly answer that question, alluding to yes, but not absolutely confirming anything. The line started to break up, I told him I’d call him again, and then we hung up.
And so it progressed. I found a vet in the neighbourhood (not Fritz’s by the way, don’t think she had one), bought the proper medicine and a flea comb since I found no evidence of this anywhere in the house. I gave her a dose and proceeded to comb her fur on the backyard picnic table. I combed and combed, Dan’s neighbour (the one who was supposed to have the key) came out on her balcony and watched me do this for a spate. I combed some more and swear I found well over a hundred fleas on her body.
It was a full on infestation.
I called Dan, his phone rang and rang. I called again, with the same result. We did connect again when I told him I’d given her the medicine and we’d have to wait and see.
I knew the steps. I vacuumed everything (having to keep the bag, because ironically they only had one vacuum bag left. I then ordered new vacuum bags for them). I laundered everything, including their bedding, anything the cat sat on and their children’s bedding, but with only one washer that doubled as a dryer the process was slow. Multiples bites kept appearing on my legs until I went back to the vet who recommended a pesticide spray I should use in the corners of the walls.
I hadn’t even gotten to all my possessions yet. A miracle happened at least, while Fritz’s skin improved, so did her sneezing problem. Research shows that cats can have allergic reactions to flea infestations. On top of it, her fur looked much healthier than it did before. Yet, I didn’t connect these dots until much later.
But the situation got worse. The fleas were persistent and after nearly two weeks of it, that’s when the plastic came in. Fleas surrounded me at every turn, I found them in my clothes, when ever I did yoga on the floor, but the final straw was my toiletries bag. IN my toiletries bag. Stuck in ziplock bags of items that touched my face. I was so consumed with everything else that I hadn’t even thought to look there.
Everything I owned sat on that bedroom floor which I had vacuumed a few times already. I knew I had to hot wash every single thing I owned short of my suitcase or I’d be hauling fleas with me to the next country.
This perfect storm drowned me. The constant combing of the cat, vacuuming, washing and spraying. I was all alone dealing with this, with no support. I was so stressed, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be teary eyed and I was days, if not weeks behind on work.
All for a house that wasn’t even mine, shouldering duties that truthfully weren’t part of the agreement, but probably could have been fine had I done my homework. A house that likely needed professional fumigation by this point.
I broke down and went to the neighbour’s house. Her name is Marjolein and she was nice, although she didn’t stand too close because of the fleas.
That’s when I found out that Dan’s father lived in the neighbourhood the entire time. THE ENTIRE TIME. She knew this from a few passing conversations. I had to find out from her, not him.
It was then that I decided, enough was enough.
I tried calling Dan again and eureka, connected with him. Apparently the German camping gods were in a good mood. I told him that this problem was too large and that he’d have to call his father in to help, and why didn’t I get his father’s number before? I didn’t get much answer out of him (vagueness seemed to be his modus operandi), when he agreed to call his father in. Sure, there were apologies. Sure, he acted sorry. It was then that alarm bells finally clanged loudly in my head.
Dan’s father came by and agreed to take care of Fritz and consider calling a fumigation specialist (though in the end, he didn’t).
The truth is, I not only needed help, but felt the situation was not working out. Once I decided that, a wave of relief washed over me.
I moved my things to a hotel and had the best shower of my life.
Enter, the dad.
When I finally saw the father a picture of this family formed, because up until then I didn’t have a clear one since Dan had no photos of himself or his wife anywhere. In came a man with wire rim glasses and wild, curly hair, wearing faded coveralls and scuffed Crocs. When we shook hands his palm felt like sandpaper and his nails were overgrown with a black substance under them, I tried not to speculate what it was (dirt or not).
He also had a lassiez-faire attitude and almost didn’t seem to believe me until I pulled up my pant leg to show him.
I relayed the incident and mentioned the medicine and he said, oh no problem, we’ve had many cats and this has happened before. I told him if that was the case, they should have been giving her flea medication in the beginning of the summer. Oh, that poison, he retorted. It’s not poison if it helps her, she was suffering a lot, by the way, I replied.
I was dealing with a naturalist, which is all well and good when it’s your own body, but not so responsible when it’s your animal’s.
By the time I left Dan’s house, I had about 52 flea bites on my body. That natural enough for you?
I know, I know… you’re all gasping and shaking your heads with disgust. Jeannie, aren’t you supposed to be this veteran traveler. Shouldn’t you know better?!
- I was so excited about this house sit that I became blinded to doing my due diligence. I mentioned emergency numbers in initial emails, but wasn’t assertive with it. I was wrong, so wrong.
- In my previous house sitting experiences, there had been familiarity established already and a level of trust. No two ways about it, I was ill prepared on this one.
- I had no sense of how bad the infestation was, it was similar to walking through a verdant field of cornflowers in Italy and then stepping on a land mine. It seemed fine at first and manageable, until the depth of the flea issue dug a deeper hole for me.
- I knew no locals in Amsterdam and the neighbour sort of appeared later. Although I did know another blogger, we ‘d only just met, so it felt wrong to ask her for help. Oh Jeannie, don’t be stubborn, ask for help.
- Fleas are not that tragic (had a scare with my own cat once), but there’s more on the line when it’s not your house and costs or decisions have to be made and the owner seems distant in reaction, action and geography.
- Much of my personal stress stemmed from having to deal with the fleas for hours and multiple days. I was grossly behind on work, the main one being my presentation for Blogstock, which I’d barely produced and I was due to speak in about two weeks time. Nor was it enjoyable discovering more fleas and nursing multiple bites on my body.
- I felt the burden of being alone in this and thinking I had to take care of it, no matter what. Homeowners typically seek out a house sitter because there’s nobody else to care for their home. Explain the father being only a few blocks away then?? Don’t even get me started.
- My goal was not to assume the worst, whether Dan knew about the fleas, I’m not entirely positive, but I do know it felt wrong in the end.
Before you close this post and run away screaming, house sitting is a viable option. Subtract the fleas and it could have been an enriching experience.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I think it has merit, even for solo travelers. You get to live in a neighbourhood, watch daily life unfold and be in homey environment that’s not a hotel.
Just don’t make my mistakes, ensure you take the right steps for your first house sit.
1. Before you even arrive, lay out clear expectations on both sides, make sure it’s in writing and acknowledged by both parties.
2. Better yet, send them a house sitting agreement so all details are outlined. Download a typical one here: House Sitting Agreement.
3. Ask and push for emergency numbers from the beginning. Because you are solo, it’s even more important to find support if there’s an emergency.
4. Once you get those emergency numbers test them out, by calling one of them to introduce yourself. This may be overkill, but it helps to know the numbers work.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask the homeowner questions. As much as they must trust you, you also need to trust them. If anything feels strange or wrong, decline the house sit.
6. Propose a Skype interview, so both parties can place a face to the name and get a feel for personalities.
7. Make sure a method of compensation is agreed upon should you have to handle an emergency and money needs to be paid out.
8. Most house sits involve caring for animals, make sure the owner has a vet, a phone number and an address for the vet and health certificates for the animals. Fleas are insidious buggers and an infestation can spread quickly, but a responsible pet owner likely has checks and balances in place for this — some kind of flea preventative medicine.
I know you all think I’m perfect, but sadly I’m only human. Even after all this time, I still make mistakes. But at least I learn from them and hopefully won’t repeat them again.